The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

Casks at the Fraserburgh breweryThere is, I suggest, a thick slice of what the Irish call begrudgery in the responses around the British beerosphere to the success of BrewDog. Here are these young guys, starting in their early 20s, who managed in a few years to build one of the best-known and fastest-growing breweries in Britain, worth on the order of £10m, in part through a series of stunts including reporting themselves to the drinks industry watchdog just for the publicity, selling beer at £500 a pop in bottles that had been stuffed into dead animals, and calling the Advertising Standards Authority “motherfuckers”.

Martin Dickie and James Watt now have their beers on bar and supermarket shelves not just in Britain but around the world, a growing and increasingly international chain of bars of their own, and even their own American TV show, FFS, now entering its second series. Uniquely among British brewers, Dickie and Watt have made a huge success of crowd-sourced funding, raising around £9m from some 14,000 customer-investors to fund their extremely impressive growth (that’s about £650 an investor, to save you working it out). Around 5,000 of those investors are expected to make the trip to Aberdeen this summer for the BrewDog AGM. You wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it’s Kool-Aid rather than Punk IPA they’ll be drinking.

While their fan base is clearly considerable, and happy to hand over lots of its cash, you certainly won’t search long to find vicious criticism of BrewDog on the web: “BrewDog are horrible marketing-type suit people who make terrible beer”; “a lot of juvenile rhetoric, devious marketing stunts and grotesquely cynical ‘punk’ references”; “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog. We’re sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex … their beer is total shite.”; “shallow, arrogant hyperbolic fuckwits”; “Next to a genuinely class brewery like Beavertown or The Kernel, BrewDog are an embarrassment … Punk IPA – a truly dreadful beer … they’re a successful marketing company who happen to use beer labels as their medium, rather than a genuine craft brewery” – you’re getting the picture.

There is, of course, a simple answer to all that criticism: you say that, but you don’t have 14,000 investors and your own American TV show, and nor are your marketing tactics being used as case studies for other businesses.

I’ve had disagreements with BrewDog myself, but I’ve always thought that Dickie and Watt had no reason to care about what I thought, any more than they would be bothered by any of their other critics: if some people don’t like their beers and their marketing tactics, a more-than-sufficiency of others do. So I was surprised to be approached by the company and asked if I’d like to join nine other beer bloggers and writers from as far away as Finland, Norway and France to be flown to Aberdeen, taken round the 13-month-old Ellon brewery and beered and dined at BrewDog’s expense. Were BrewDog on a charm offensive? Apparently so: last week they flew up a load of journalists who had written about BrewDog in the past, for a similar jolly, which resulted in, eg, this review in the Morning Advertiser. But why woo me? According to Alexa, this blog ranks number 32,360 among UK websites: that’s really not very influential.

But, hey, I like looking around breweries at other people’s expense, even if it means having to get up at 4am to drive to Gatwick for a flight on the EasyJet red-eye. And yes, I was interested in meeting Dickie and Watt, probably the finest guerrilla marketers currently operating in Britain (and easily the best guerrilla marketers the British brewing industry has ever seen). I don’t know how much they actually spend on marketing, but I doubt it’s a huge amount, which makes their ability to generate column inches all over the world from apparently tangential events quite brilliant – come on, what other British brewer do you know who could get stories in newspapers from Sweden to Thailand publicising their new beer launch?

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog's Ellon brewery

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog’s Ellon brewery

Still, if it isn’t ultimately about the beer, what is it? And I have to say that I came away from Ellon having seen the shiny big new brewery, and the rather less shiny, very much smaller original BrewDog brewery in Fraserburgh, having tasted large amounts of BrewDog beer, having heard Dickie and Watt talk about their vision, and having been given an excellent beer-and-food matching evening at Watt’s Aberdeen restaurant-cum-arts venue Musa, feeling that the hype almost certainly was secondary: that for Dickie and Watt the beer definitely does come first, and the marketing is there merely to promote the beer.

I think what probably finally persuaded me of that was discussing the brewery’s “hop cannon”, which fires 20 kilos of hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks, as BrewDog’s take on dry-hopping. Each 600-hectolitre conditioning tank gets 600 kilograms of dry hopping. The hidden cost is that 600kg of dry hops will soak up 20 per cent of the beer in the tank while it is releasing all those yummy resins and flavourings. That’s 120 hectolitres – 73 barrels – of beer that has to be, effectively, thrown away (although those used hops get used by the farmers of Aberdeenshire to fertilise their fields). In other words, BrewDog wastes (if you want to look at it like that) more beer a week than many other micros brew. If you’re prepared to sacrifice a fifth of your production to ensure you don’t sacrifice any of the taste you’re after, hey – you’re putting the beer first. And I have to say that I didn’t have a bad beer on the trip, while at least one, the new AB15, a 12 per cent abv imperial stout with added salt caramel, aged in both rum and bourbon casks, was exceptional, a lovely salty-sweet brew with huge depth of flavour.

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The new brewery may have wacky murals and exhortatory neon slogans on the walls, but its kit smacks of no-expense-spared: the brewery lab has a machine that will check the precise levels of diacetyl in the beer, for example, which saves on the time and trouble of having to send samples away for analysis and speeds up decision-making on whether a beer has reached maturity. A new water treatment plant has been installed, which will allow precise levels of oxygen to be maintained in the brewing water. BrewDog is the biggest buyer of Nelson Sauvin hops in the world. The brewery can currently produce 100,000 hectolitres of beer, with room to expand to 250,000hl – 150,000 barrels. In the new warehouse, pallets are stacked with ekegs and bottles to be shipped to more than 40 different countries: Greece, Sweden, Thailand, Belarus and so on. “Their beer is total shite”? I’m sorry, sir, there appear to be an awful lot of people who don’t agree.

Photo Gallery

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

BrewDog's head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer's Beard

BrewDog’s head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer’s Beard

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station at the BrewDog brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station The brewer’s sink at the BrewDog brewery – see comment below by MikeS for a fuller explanation

More underwater-themed murals for punks ...

More underwater-themed murals for punks …

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps ...

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps …

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

The bottling line

The bottling line

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

BrewDog couldn’t be more wrong in wanting an ‘official’ definition of craft beer

Ancient Order of Frothblowers“Never be afraid to be controversial” is less a statement of policy and more like a reason for living, as far as the BrewDog guys are concerned. Last week James Watt, the brewery’s co-founder, put up on his blog an impassioned argument putting the case for an “official” definition of craft beer to be adopted in the UK. Below is my response, published originally over at the day job, showing how he’s completely wrong.

I won’t yield to anybody in my admiration for James Watt’s abilities as a guerrilla marketeer. He and Martin Dickie, co-founders of Brewdog, have skillfully turned a small independent brewery in – with the greatest respect to the people of North Aberdeenshire – the rear end of nowhere into one of the leaders of the small independent brewery sector in the UK. They now have a reputation among many beer drinkers as perhaps the most iconoclastic, “edgy” brewers in the country, a growing empire of their own bars around the UK, and a presence on the shelves of leading supermarkets and in any “craft beer” bar worthy of that name. From last month the pair even have their own TV show, Brew Dogs, on the Esquire cable TV network in the United States, where they travel across America, visiting bars and breweries and creating “locally inspired” beers. Fantastic. And yet, Watt’s latest campaign, to try to get an “official”, “industry recognised” definition of “craft beer”, to “protect the fledgling craft beer movement in the UK and in Europe” and also to “protect and inform the customer”, suggests to me he doesn’t actually understand the business environment he is working in as well as he thinks he does. What is more, his arguments for the need for an “official” definition of craft beer are entirely nonsensical and totally evidence-free.

Watt says the reason a proper definition of “craft beer”, “to be recognised by both CAMRA and SIBA and also at a European level by the Brewers of Europe Association” is required is because of “three words – Blue Fucking Moon”. Just like many small brewers in the US, he is clearly annoyed that Molson Coors’ Belgian-style wheat beer comes in packaging that could pass as a product from a much smaller operator, and does not declare itself in huge type to be made by one of the giants of the American beer market. He quotes approvingly Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in California, who also wants to define “craft beer” as something in opposition to “the industrialised notion of beer” that has been “preying on the populace for decades”. Unfortunately it’s not clear if Koch, or Watt, are really interested in “saving” the drinking public from “industrialised” beer, or protecting their own sales from a much bigger rival.

Watt insists that the British craft beer movement is being held back because of the lack of an official definition of craft beer, and “the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer.” Naturally, Watt fails to give any evidence for these assertions, because there isn’t any. They’re total nonsense. Good grief, the definition Watt points to only came into existence eight years ago, in 2005, when the Brewers’ Association was formed of a merger between two other industry organisations and the combined membership decided to rig the rules so that the “big guys” would be excluded from their club. Nobody ever said before 2005: “I’m thinking of trying Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, but without an official and accepted definition of craft beer, I’m really not able to.” The boom in the US craft beer scene over the past 30 years has not been because anybody came up with a definition of “craft beer” and suddenly “craft beer” was able to take off: but because a wave of new producers dedicated to making small-batch, artisanal, flavourful beers met a wave of consumers happy to drink those sorts of beer.

This mistaken idea that consumer movements can only prosper when they have “official” guidelines to channel their enthusiasm leads Watt to assert that while “we want retail stores, bars, restaurants and hotels all to have a craft beer section in their offering,” it is “almost impossible to get them to commit to this without being able to offer them an official definition of what craft beer is.” More evidence-free nonsense. I don’t believe that any supermarket, any bar owner, any restaurant ever said to any small brewer: “I’d like to stock your beers, but without a definition of craft beer I’m just not able to do so.” Watt also declares: “What we don’t want, is for them to a create a craft beer section in their shop or menu only for this to be carpet-bombed by beers that are not craft.” What’s the matter, James – afraid that if a bar is selling Blue Moon alongside 5am Saint your beer will do badly?

The truth is not just that trying to define craft beer is impossible anyway. Watt suggests that the definition should be a completely circular one, that “craft beer is a beer brewed by a craft brewer at a craft brewery”, with the argument then devolving onto what a “craft brewer” and a “craft brewery” are – but his idea that the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation Brewdog regularly chooses to battle with, would back any definition of “craft beer” Brewdog and SIBA might come up with is another nonsense.

The real point is that, despite Watt’s fantasy, any “official” definition of craft beer, will have little to no impact on the marketplace. Those operators who might be defined as “craft beer brewers” and “craft beer retailers” seem to be doing very well in the UK without any official definition of what they are making and selling – and in any case the UK’s small brewery movement seems to me to be well beyond the “fledgling” status Watt is trying to claim for it. If Brewdog is trying to trip up the likes of Sharp’s – now owned by Coors and thus, under the definition that Watt would like to see made “official”, not a maker of “craft beer” any more – Watt really needs to realise that getting craft beer “properly” defined will make no difference at all to the amount of Doom Bar being sold across British bar tops. Overwhelmingly the beer-drinking public, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere around the world, care nothing for “official” definitions of what they are drinking: that goes for the minority who are “craft beer” drinkers, and, of course, the vast majority who prefer those beers Watt and Koch define as “the industrialised notion of beer”, and wouldn’t drink a craft beer if you gave it do them free, no matter what category you said it was in.

Over to you …

Craft beer growth ‘scaring’ big brewers? I don’t think so …

In your dreams, guys …

James Watt, who has a PhD in self-promotion from the University of BrewDog, has just issued a press release revealing impressive growth figures for the Aberdeenshire brewery, and declaring at the same time that the “UK craft beer revolution” (whatever that is) is “scaring” the country’s beer giants into trying to buy themselves a slice of the artisanal brewing action.

Molson Coors buying Sharp’s brewery “is an act of panic, not commercial nous”, according to Watt. BrewDog’s 230 per cent sales rise in 2010 compared to 2009 reflects, Watt says, “a tectonic shift in the mindset of British beer drinkers”, and according to him the Canadian-American giant, brewer of Carling in the UK, “can see the change is coming and recognition that the market is shifting … they, along with every other mainstream brewery, are shaking in their boots. Companies that sell beer through sales offers, discounts and marketing gimmicks alone are just not sustainable any longer because the craft beer revolution is redefining the expectations of UK beer drinkers.”

Um – I don’t think so. Really. I wish it were all just as James says: I’m delighted to see BrewDog doing so well, and it would be fantastic to see an army of Carling drinkers pour their over-promoted lager down the sink, turning instead to BrewDog’s Punk IPA. (Incidentally, for the man who brought us a 55 per cent abv beer sold in bottles inserted into stuffed roadkill to talk about “marketing gimmicks” smacks of the pot calling the washing machine black …) But that ain’t going to happen.

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BrewDog Atlantic IPA: is it worth it?

It’s apparently fashionable now to be sticking one’s boots into BrewDog, since the Aberdeenshire duo revealed they had reported themselves to the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, just to get the publicity. I’m always happy to join in a fight if the other side is outnumbered, so let’s have a go at them for gross historical inaccuracy over the publicity for their Atlantic IPA.

Unless you’ve been stuck in a dark bar with no internet access for the past year, you’ll know this is the brew BrewDog poured into casks and then left on a trawler sailing the North Atlantic for two months, in an attempt to replicate what happened to the original IPAs as they travelled by sea from Britain to Bombay or Calcutta.

This, BrewDog proclaimed, would be “the first IPA aged in oak casks at sea for 200 years!” Oh, really? What were Bass, Allsopp, Hodgson and the rest doing in the 19th century, shipping chopped liver out East? I don’t know when brewers in Britain stopped sending beer in casks to India to be bottled (and neither do BrewDog) but it was certainly still happening not much more than a century ago. Here’s Cornelius O’Sullivan, head brewer at Bass, one of the great Burton export pale ale brewers, giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in 1899:

“Do you export beer in the cask to places like India?”
C O’S: “Yes.”
“Which do you do most of exporting in cask or in bottle?”
C O’S: “We sell no beer in bottle. We export a considerable quantity of bulk beer in cask to India and also to Australia and America, not so much to Australia now but still what we send we export in cask. A large quantity of our beer is bottled by exporters and exported: we sell them the beer and they bottle it and export it.”
“Your beer goes out to India in casks?”
C O’S: “Yes.”

So Atlantic IPA is certainly not, as BrewDog claim, “the first commercially available, genuine sea-aged IPA in two centuries” – very far from it. Nor can they have used “a 210-year-old recipe of a traditional India Pale Ale”, since there was no such thing as India Pale Ale in 1799: the name India Pale Ale did not come into use for another 30-something years, and what brewers were exporting at the time to India was almost certainly a standard strongly hopped stock bitter beer. Nor is it true to say that “India Pale Ale was born when brewers realised that together, hops and alcohol act as a natural preservative ensuring that the beer could withstand the voyage and arrive in good condition” – brewers had known about the preserving effects of alcohol and hops for centuries before IPA, and beers were being transported around the world from the earliest years of European exploration.

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Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

I just caught up with BBC 4′s Food Programme from last Sunday, which was about the British hop industry, and as a side issue, IPA in a couple or so of its current incarnations – there are just two days left before it disappears from the BBC website, so if you’re quick, and you’ve got RealPlayer or similar installed on your computer, you can catch it here (oh, and you have to be in the UK, or be able to fool the BBC’s website that you’re in the UK, or it won’t let you listen – sorry.)

Anyway, I though it was a fair treatment of the subject, with a quick scamper through what hops do for beer (flavouring and preserving – but you knew that), and interviews “in the field” with David Holmes, head brewer at Shepherd Neame; Tony Redsell, a Kentish hop grower; and Dr Peter Darby of the National Hop Collection at Queen Court Farm, near Faversham, who talked about the more than 300 different oils found in hops, and the different flavours that, singly and in combination, they bring to beer, from mint to passion fruit.

Back in the studio, the presenter, Sheila Dillon, talked to Roger Protz, and to Martin Dickie, brewer and co-owner of Brewdog Brewery. In a quick tasting, bottles were opened of Brewdog’s Punk IPA, made with Chinook and Ahtanum hops from the US and Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, and Atlantic IPA (which spent two months in cask on a fishing boat being rocked by North Atlantic waves and will cost you £10 a bottle), and, for contrast, Meantime Brewery’s IPA, flavoured with nothing but finest English Fuggles and Goldings. It was excellent to hear Sheila Dillon saying “Wow, that’s good!” as she tried the Punk IPA, and expressing surprise that, at 65 or 70 units of bitterness, twice as much (at least) as, say, a best bitter, it didn’t pucker your mouth, as Roger and Martin explained that this was because the bitterness was balanced by the alcohol, at 6.5 per cent by volume. Continue reading

The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

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